Arab nations move against Uighurs for sake of China ties

Courtesy of Sumeyye Hamdullah
Sumeyye Hamdullah, left, with her father Hamdullah Veli

CAIRO — Members of the Uighur ethnic minority who fled to the Middle East to escape Chinese government oppression have been detained in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, with some facing possible deportation to China. These nations appear to be prioritizing their economic interests with China over solidarity with Muslim Uighurs.

“If my father is deported back to China, his life will be in danger,” said Sumeyye Hamdullah, a Uighur who fled to Turkey, in a phone interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun. “Our precious family will be destroyed,” the 20-year-old said in a trembling voice.

Sumeyye’s 54-year-old father, Hamdullah Veli, was detained with a Uighur friend by Saudi Arabian security authorities while visiting the country for a Muslim pilgrimage. On Jan. 3, the authorities told him he will soon be sent back to China.

Sumeyye posted a video of herself on social media, appealing to the international community for action. “Please help to stop the deportation,” she said.

Last December, a Moroccan court decided to extradite a Uighur activist to China after detaining him at China’s request. The man has been seeking protection as a refugee, and experts with the United Nation’s Human Rights Council expressed concern, saying the man “should be protected from any form of extradition or forced return to China, until his refugee status is decided.”

In Egypt, about 200 Uighur students studying at the Al-Azhar University were detained in 2017, with at least two dozen being sent back to China.

Statement of support

Using the term “genocide,” the United States and European nations have strongly condemned serious human rights abuses against the Uighurs in China, including detention in so-called re-education facilities in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Nevertheless, Muslim nations including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco joined other pro-China nations in signing a statement to defend China at the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues. The statement claimed that in China, “people of all ethnic groups enjoy their happy life in a peaceful and stable environment.”

From Jan. 10 to Jan. 14, foreign ministers of four Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, visited China and met with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said at a Jan. 14 press conference that the four Arab ministers “all stated their resolute support for … China’s just position on issues relating to Taiwan, Xinjiang and human rights.”

Filling the gap

Middle Eastern countries’ stance on China appears to be influenced by that nation’s ever-growing economic and military presence in the region.

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export destination, accounting for 26% of its crude oil exports. Bilateral trade between China and Egypt reached a record $14.5 billion in 2020. Morocco this month signed an “implementation plan” with China to cooperate in the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative to build a huge economic zone.

Saudi Arabia imports items such as drones from China. Total arms imports from China in 2020 were $40 million, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This accounts for only about 1.6% of all Saudi arms imports, but China is effectively filling the gap as the United States reduces its military support to the country.

Abduweli Ayup, a Uighur activist living in Norway, told The Yomiuri Shimbun that it is easy for China and Arab nations to build a cooperative relationship, as both sides have authoritarian governments. China uses “counterterrorism” as a pretext to control Uighurs, and Arab nations also utilize that banner to govern, he said.

Ayup fears that Uighurs are also being excluded from the Muslim world.